How Safe Is Boulder’s Highway 36?
A look inside the city’s most notorious cycling route.
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Tragedy struck the triathlon community on Aug. 7 when 34-year-old Michelle Walters of McCook, Neb. was hit and killed by a vehicle while racing on the Ironman Boulder bike course. The fatal accident threw the spotlight on Highway 36, a route popular among triathletes and cyclists because it’s the main artery connecting Boulder to well-loved climbs and other routes north of the city. Here’s what you need to know about the city’s most notorious road.
Sometimes-narrow shoulders and a high speed limit have given the 16-mile section of Highway 36 from Boulder to Lyons, Colo., its reputation as a scary but necessary evil to get out of town. Stats from Colorado State Patrol show the rep isn’t completely unfounded; while CSP did not have statistics covering accidents on all 16 miles of Highway 36, CSP did say that in the past five years, three other injury-causing cyclist-vehicle incidents have occurred on the four-mile section running from Jay Rd. to Neva Rd. where the Ironman collision occurred; only Walters’ was fatal.
“There are sections along Hwy. 36 with no margin for error,” says Boulder resident Rebekah Keat, a two-time Ironman champion, and the fourth fastest woman in Ironman history. She rides that four-mile stretch of the highway no less than four times per week. “I always tell groups I’m with to ride single file because many parts are too narrow to ride two abreast.”
Mark Van Akkeren, another Boulder resident, former pro and current triathlon coach, notes that on the section of Hwy. 36 where Walters was struck, the shoulder thins from roughly 12 feet to 4 feet. “Even though it still leaves enough room for cyclists, many locals are used to a much larger shoulder, so that area is proportionally much smaller,” says Van Akkeren. It is important to note, however, that at the time of the event a larger section of the shoulder was coned off on Hwy. 36 while traffic still flowed normally nearby. The Colorado State Patrol told Triathlete that Walters swerved into the lane of traffic and noted that speed or alcohol were not a factor with the driver.
Highway 36 was similarly coned off—or open to usual traffic—without incident for at least six other independent triathlon events in 2015: Colorado Triathlon, Harvest Moon Long Course Triathlon, Boulder Sunrise Triathlon, Boulder Sunset Triathlon, Tri Boulder and Boulder Peak Triathlon. The road’s proximity to the Boulder reservoir, where the swim leg is held, makes it a magnet for multisport events.
Van Akkeren says group rides like the famously aggressive “Bus Stop Ride” also travel along the same stretch of road where the accident occurred. The 35 to 40-mile hammerfest meets Tuesday and Thursday evenings and is known to include ProTour cyclists.
Despite the constant presence of cyclists, and Boulder’s well-earned reputation as a cyclist-friendly city, the speed limit on Hwy. 36 is still 60 miles per hour with nothing but a white line standing between big rigs and lightweight carbon. The combination of drivers who are used to sharing the road with cyclists, and athletes’ heightened sense of awareness on the speedy stretch may keep the rate of incidents low—but the consequences of error are staggeringly high.
Walters’ death is the fifth involving a cyclist and a vehicle in Boulder County this year. Only six weeks earlier and less than two miles away on Jay Road, where traffic often travels in excess of 45 miles per hour, another cyclist was struck and killed by a drunk driver. Though the two incidents bear little resemblance on the surface (the victim in the June incident was not participating in an event, and the driver was charged with vehicular homicide DUI and hit-and-run), it underscores the dangers of routes that put cyclists in close proximity to high-speed traffic.
Despite the risks, Keat says most cyclists don’t have any other option to bike out to arguably some of the best riding in the country. “People use it to ride out to Lyons to reach famous climbs like Estes Park. On the weekends there are can be more bikes than cars,” she says. “It’s the safest dangerous route in the area.”